Carlson’s Raiders and gung-ho

Gung-ho means impulsive, enthusiastic and eager behaviour, especially referring to military action. It was first used in the US Marine Corps by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (Carlson’s Raiders) that operated in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. Although Carlson and his Raiders gave gung-ho its modern meaning it had a very different meaning when they first used it.

Carlson had been posted to China in the late 1920s. He returned before the war to observe the Chinese communist’s guerrilla tactics against the Japanese who had invaded Manchuria. He also spent time with a group of Western expatriate, communist sympathisers. Among them was Edgar Snow, a US journalist; his wife, Helen Snow; and Rewi Alley, a New Zealander. They had successfully introduced industrial cooperatives into China to help boost and rescue the war-time economy.

Helen Snow had promoted using labour as capital, Edgar Snow had introduced the term industrial cooperatives and Rewi Alley had created a logo based on two Chinese characters 工合, gōng and hé, translated as work together. The Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association (CIC) had been founded in 1938 with an international arm known as the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (known as Gung Ho-ICCIC).

Rewi Alley is recognised as having invented gung-ho, as a Chinese term for a cooperative. In a quote from a 1943 interview Carlson explained how he had adopted the term and initially used it in the Marines:

I told the boys about it again and again. I told them of the motto of the Chinese Cooperatives, Gung Ho. It means Work Together-Work in Harmony…

In August 1942 Carlson led the Raiders on a famous mission to Makin Island (one of the Gilbert islands, now known as Butaritari). This raid became the subject of a film: Gung Ho!: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders. It was this film that pushed gung-ho into mainstream use. However, gung-ho was associated with the commando tactics used by the raiders and not the delegating and cooperating command structures that Carlson had promoted. Thus the term for cooperation became a term for a militaristic way of doing things.